Many of us have heard about smart building controls, but there is wider spread knowledge about smart utility meters.  This is especially true lately in many parts of Maine, as special interest groups have opposed the installation of smart meters, which the press has covered extensively.  So what are these smart devices and what do they mean to consumers?

“Smart Controls” is an all-inclusive term for controls that are differentiated from standard devices by the advanced features added to them.  The characteristics of these “smart” devices vary, including mobile access, data recording, motion detection, automatically adaptable programming, etc. and then have been applied to building automation control devices, such as thermostats, like these, offered by Nest and Ecobee.

These devices are just the tip of the iceberg, and represent very few devices in the HVAC field.  There are a myriad of for-the-home smart controls available for appliances, lighting systems, irrigation, security systems, etc.  The novelty of an interconnected smart home has been discussed and demonstrated for many years in the residential building field, yet, only recently is implementation becoming commercialized beyond the level of research projects and “science experiment” adoption.

One common characteristic of this family of control devices is an executive degree of access and operability by the user.  Wall mounted touch screens with intuitive, high-resolution graphics and even easy-to-use mobile apps give users unprecedented access to their houses.  The technology is not only limited to residences, however; larger-scale commercial buildings and the components within can be fitted with smart controls as well.

So what about Smart Meters?  In their simplest sense, they are electrical meters that communicate directly with utility companies, typically by radio frequency.  Successfully installed and operated world wide, they reduce cost of utilities by eliminating the need for monthly visits by technicians to individual meters.  These meters open the door for far more advanced features and benefits (you can learn more about smart meters by clicking here).

To understand the significance and benefits of smart meters, the electrical utility provider’s endeavor must also be understood.  Matching power generation to consumption has been a challenge for many decades.  Utility providers struggle with supplying adequate power during peak periods of the day and typically have to buy expensive power from generating stations during these peaks to meet the demand.  These surge periods also place immense pressure on aging transmission and distribution (T&D) systems.  In extreme cases, such demand causes brownouts and blackouts that are becoming increasingly common, especially in urban markets.  This is an appallingly large national problem.  Over the past year,  utilities have imposed additional charges, called “demand charges,” to commercial and industrial accounts based upon their highest demand, creating in a sense, a demand penalty.  During low demand periods the utilities have much lower costs and their T&D systems are underutilized; thus they have a significant interest in shifting electrical usage from high peak to off-peak periods.

Cue Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” because here comes the procession.  In the near future, both consumers and utilities will benefit from smart meters, because they will allow utilities to provide real-time pricing to consumers.  Utilities can then pass along cheaper costs for electricity off-peak and get higher fees for on-peak usage.  Already most markets have some limited time-of-day rate plan, yet the periods are relatively long (4-6 hours) and the differential between on and off peak is not terribly attractive.  With smart meters, consumers may be rewarded for shifting discretionary power usage by simply delaying a load of laundry, running their dishwashers, swimming pool pumps, etc., during these off-peak hours by simply setting their home smart controls to execute those commands.

As an engineer and energy efficiency practitioner, I have been amazed at how consumers have already modified their behavior, even in the absence of a direct economic benefit.  Many do it due to the benefits to the environment, and to help the electric utilities.  Although this discussion has focused on electric utilities, the same concerns and opportunities apply to others, such as natural gas.  We expect them to follow the trend, albeit well behind.

Once direct economic benefits are available to the marketplace, expect to see rapid adoption.  Thayer Corporation recently teamed up with a utility and controls manufacturer and was awarded a significant pilot project to install hundreds of smart controls in commercial buildings in central Maine. We are extraordinarily excited to be playing a part in this pioneering trend; however, until more smart meters are installed, widespread, mainstream integrated smart buildings are not a feasible option.

Additionally, for interoperability of devices, a common communication protocol (CCP) is necessary.  There is wide disagreement within the industry; the big players, such as Siemens, Honeywell, AT&T, GE, etc. are deadlocked in a parochial battle to use their CCP exclusively.  Can you imagine if your iPhone could only communicate to another Apple product, or if your Samsung device only worked with another by the same manufacturer?  The marketplace will solve this battle eventually, but it will delay manufacturers of appliances and devices from investing in product design and manufacturing until this is resolved.  Furthermore, there is conflict nationwide about which trade(s) and which professional licensures will be authorized and required to install and service these smart controls and devices; however, that’s a story for another article.


Dan Thayer, P.E., President
Professional Engineer and Certified Energy Manager